Sharing challah, a mildly sweet, braided or coiled yeast bread that is typically made from wheat flour, is a sacred Shabbat and holiday tradition much beloved by Jewish families around the world. It goes without saying that the absence of fresh, safe-to-eat challah in the rituals of Friday night dinner and Saturday lunch after services can be a source of great sadness and loss for Jewish celiacs and others whose health dictates that they must eat strictly gluten-free. Although it took us many years and much encouragement from friends David, Yael, and others, we are so grateful we could develop this heart-warming recipe and publish it just in time for Rosh Hashanah.
True kosher challah is subject to a rather complex set of blessings, customs and laws (halacha) governing its preparation and consumption. One such law, or requirement, is that challah be made only from the grains wheat, barley, rye, spelt or oats. Of these, only oats may be safely eaten by those with celiac disease and then only if they have been specially grown, harvested, and processed in a segregated manner that protects the oats from cross-contamination with gluten, as verified by ELISA testing (see note on flours below). Our challah recipe calls for gluten-free oats, yeast, eggs, and water as well as a few other gluten-free baking essentials that enable to the dough to rise and keep its shape, thus producing a texture, taste and appearance that are as authentic as possible. (We have found that braiding the gluten-free dough is virtually impossible and even when a braid is completed, it generally collapses during baking, so this recipe is for challah prepared in a round coil.)
In the past few decades challah has also entered mainstream cuisine as a fantastic vehicle for French toast (as many a Northeast and a few Chicago-area diner menus can attest), as well as a delicious bread in its own right. This recipe will work beautifully for such purposes. For those who keep kosher or desire to use the challah for Shabbat or holiday observances, we recommend consulting with a rabbi to ensure that these challahs may be used or adapted in accordance with kashrut. Please note that this recipe makes one very large or two medium challahs, using less than 2 lbs of flour.
3 large eggs
1/2 cup (120 ml) olive or canola oil
1/3 cup (65g) granulated sugar
1 Tbsp (10g) gluten-free yeast
1 1/2 cups (145g) gluten-free oat flour*
1 cup (142g) gluten-free potato starch
1/2 cup (70g) glutinous rice flour or “sweet” rice flour*
2 Tbsps (18g) gluten-free arrowroot starch, or tapioca flour/starch
1 1/2 tsps (4g) kosher salt
1 tsp (2g) xanthan gum
1 tsp (2g) guar gum
1 tsp (5ml) apple cider vinegar
1/2 cup (120 ml) warm water (110 degrees Fahrenheit, 43 degrees Celsius)
additional glutinous or “sweet” rice flour for rolling
1 egg yolk for glaze
*A note about flours: Although oats are by nature gluten-free, it is essential to use specially marked gluten-free oats when baking for anyone with celiac disease or extreme sensitivity to gluten since oats are prone to cross-contamination with gluten at several stages of their growth, harvesting and processing. It is also advisable to seek a doctor's approval before consuming gluten-free oats when starting a gluten-free diet for medical reasons. The most widely-available brand of gluten-free oat flour is from Bob's Red Mill.
Glutinous rice flour is commonly available in Asian markets and may be labeled as “sticky” rice flour. Erawan Glutinous Rice Flour is a favorite brand. Bob’s Red Mill calls their version “sweet” rice flour. Despite the glutinous name, it does not contain any of the gluten that causes autoimmune reactions in celiacs. Its properties in baking and especially shaping gluten-free doughs are very different from regular white or brown rice flour, with which glutinous rice flour is NOT interchangeable.
Line a rimless 16” (40cm) or larger pizza pan with a large piece of parchment paper. Set aside. Secure a clean, dry pizza stone for the baking process.
In a small bowl, use a fork to beat the egg yolk with a small amount of water. Reserve for glaze to be applied immediately prior to baking.
In a medium bowl, whisk together yeast, oat flour, potato starch, arrowroot or tapioca starch, glutinous or “sweet” rice flour, salt, xanthan and guar gums until well combined. Set aside.
Next, in the bowl of a heavy stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat 3 eggs on high until foamy and almost doubled in volume, about two (2) minutes. Combine oil and sugar with eggs and blend on medium speed, about 1 minute. Add vinegar and with the mixer on low speed, then gently add in the flour mix as prepared. Finally, add the warm water and mix on high speed for one minute. Stop the mixer to scrape down the bowl and mix on high for an additional two minutes.
Sprinkle a few tablespoons of glutinous or “sweet” rice flour on a clean, dry kitchen counter or oversized gluten-free cutting board. If making two medium challahs, divide the dough into two equal parts (a kitchen scale is great for this but judging by eye will be fine, too) and place one-half on top of the rice flour. Add a little more glutinous rice flour on top of the dough and use dry, floured hands to work the flour into the dough until its stickiness has subsided just enough to make the dough malleable. Shape the dough first into a small ball and then gently roll it into a uniformly thick log of about 14-15 inches (35-38 cm), if making two challahs, in length.
Try to handle the dough as little as possible so that it does not develop too many cracks or splits, which can expand and become more problematic during rising and baking. Starting from one end, coil the log into a tight, snail-like shape. Use a large spatula (such as this one from King Arthur Flour) to aid in transferring the challah to the pan lined with parchment paper as it will be very floppy. Repeat this process with the second half of the dough. Place the second shaped challah on the pan a few inches from the first and leave in a warm area to rise for 45 minutes. A single large challah may need to rise as much as an hour.
The pizza stone should be brought up to temperature while the challahs are resting. Place the pizza stone on the middle rack of the oven and preheat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit (190 Celsius) with stone inside.
When the challahs have grown by at least one-third and the oven is preheated, apply the previously made egg glaze to the surface of both loaves using a silicone pastry brush. (Be advised that allowing the challah to rise too long can distort the shape and even cause the coil to unwind partially.) Transfer the loaves to the hot pizza stone together with the parchment paper but remove the rimless pizza pan so that the bread bakes on the stone with only the parchment and stone underneath. The best way to transfer the loaves is to place the pan at a slight angle to the stone, touching or almost touching the part of the stone that is in the back of the oven, and then pull the pan out swiftly with one hand while holding on to the parchment with the other hand and gently lowering both the parchment and challahs onto the stone.
Bake one large challah for 35 minutes or two challahs for 25-30 minutes, until they have achieved a deep golden-brown sheen and a toothpick inserted in the center or thickest area comes out clean. Remove challahs and parchment (by sliding the rimless pan underneath the parchment for the transfer process) and place challahs on a wire rack (without pan or parchment) to cool. Please note that pizza stones are prone to cracking if subjected to sudden changes in temperature. The stone should be allowed to cool off gradually in the oven, if possible, and then brought to room temperature slowly.
Challah may be enjoyed in your preferred manner as soon as it has cooled to room temperature.